***ARC received via Netgalley in return for an honest review***
When Alizée Benoit, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), vanishes in New York City in 1940, no one knows what happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her arts patron and political compatriot, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not her close-knit group of friends and fellow WPA painters, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. And, some seventy years later, not her great-niece, Danielle Abrams, who, while working at Christie’s auction house, uncovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind works by those now famous Abstract Expressionist artists. Do they hold answers to the questions surrounding her missing aunt?
Entwining the lives of both historical and fictional characters, and moving between the past and the present, The Muralist plunges readers into the divisiveness of prewar politics and the largely forgotten plight of European refugees refused entrance to the United States. It captures both the inner workings of New York’s art scene and the beginnings of the vibrant and quintessentially American school of Abstract Expressionism.
B. A. Shapiro explores one of the most turbulent times in American history. The popular sentiment in the U.S. at the time was to stay out of events in Europe and concentrate on recovering from the Great Depression. The Muralist draws on many emotions by personalizing the struggle of European refugees fleeing from Hitler’s armies and the families in the U.S. fighting for their relatives’ freedom and safety – fear, anger, sadness, and frustration just to name a few. Shapiro does an excellent job of articulating the political turmoil of time as well as the artistic forces behind the Abstract Expressionist movement.
I enjoyed The Muralist for many reasons – the history behind the WPA, the background of the Abstract Expressionist artists, and most especially the Isolationist history of pre-WWII America. The characters are engaging, and I found the interaction between Alizee and the real Expressionist artists intriguing – enough so that I was disappointed to learn that Alizee is completely fictional as is her art. The narrative of the Jewish refugees and their resulting plight as they were turned away by the United States infuriated me in a way history class never did. At the same time, I found it easy to put this book down. It didn’t call for me to keep reading, and I had to block time out to finish it. I would still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, art, politics, and mystery.